In Family Support

You can have healthy disagreements with the people in your life.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Because humans are imperfect, complex social beings, we argue. We disagree. We butt heads. If you’re not fighting every once in a while, congratulations for being perfect or extremely conflict-averse. Ideally, on the other side, we come to an agreement everyone is satisfied with: a shared understanding, an apology, a more efficient workflow. Even in the worst-case scenario, each party should feel heard, even if disagreements linger. “A good argument is one in which both sides walk away feeling like they would do that again,” says Bo Seo, author of Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard, “not that it’s life-changing or a hugely positive experience.”

As many of us know from our own experiences, though, most arguments fail to meet that standard. John Gottman and his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman have seen their fair share of argumentative blunders in their decades of research on couples. This history has earned them a reputation as two of the most popular and well-regarded experts on love and relationships. One of the biggest mistakes people make in disagreements is fighting to win — to prove the other person wrong and persuade — rather than to understand, Gottman said. We may be tempted to levy personal attacks and blame the other person. We might dismiss and interrupt them. We may play the victim or completely shut down. The good news is it’s possible to have better, more effective fights. No relationship is without conflict, but a little conversational fine-tuning can transform an often frustrating experience into a fruitful one. Here’s what to keep in mind.

Understand what you’re really arguing about

Because no one truly anticipates an argument, it can be difficult to zero in on what you actually want to get out of it. Your motivation may be something concrete — wanting to finish the bathroom renovation — or more amorphous, like getting an apology. Regardless of your desired outcome, there is often a deeper meaning behind the intricacies of the fight, says Chris Segrin, head of the University of Arizona’s department of communication. Although you may be arguing about what color to paint the bathroom, there is likely a larger symbolic issue at play. “‘We live in this apartment and everything in here is the way you set it up and the way you want it,’” Segrin notes as an example. “‘I don’t feel like I have any opportunity to have my style in here.’”

The Gottmans refer to this as the “dreams within conflict.” To determine the dream behind the other person’s argument, they suggest asking questions like, “Tell me why this is so important to you,” or, “Is there a story behind this for you?” One partner should do all the listening at first and then be given the space to answer the same questions, uninterrupted. “You come out of that with much deeper understanding of your partner,” Schwartz Gottman says, “and oftentimes more compassion, as you understand, for example, that they may have some baggage or traumatic history that influenced their position now on an issue.”

Ask yourself if you’re butting heads over a difference in worldview or in values, says friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson, author of Fighting for Our Friendships: The Science and Art of Conflict and Connection in Women’s Relationships. Sometimes the people in your life make different choices that may be annoying but ultimately don’t impact you. Other times, major gaps in core values may threaten the relationship. You should feel empowered to bring up how you feel their views impact you; you might consider whether you can continue to be in a relationship with them if they continue to hold these opinions, Bayard Jackson says.

Typically, people want one of three things out of an argument: to make a point, make a difference, or be heard.

Wanting to make a point, to be right, or to prove the other person wrong is not an effective strategy, Segrin says. “People just don’t respond well to that tactic,” he says. If you find yourself in this camp, consider why it’s so important for you to express this point and why getting the other person to change their mind is the right way forward. There are, of course, very crucial reasons to change someone’s mind: maybe they’re at risk of hurting themselves or other people, for example, or you’re their parent and you need to guide them. Generally, though, attempting to force someone to see things your way may drive a deeper wedge in the relationship.

Making a difference means transforming the relationship or the outcome in some way: hearing what motivates them, collaborating on how to move forward, and growing closer in the process.

It’s also possible that you don’t want anyone to debate you — or to change anything about the situation — but to make your voice heard. This can be an effective approach in professional settings, says Alison Green, creator of the work advice column Ask a Manager. If you’re on the other side when someone’s venting — especially if that person is a subordinate at work — make them feel heard, that you’re interested in understanding their perspective and how you might learn from it, Green says.

Sometimes our goals aren’t necessarily realistic: You probably can’t duck out of that company retreat or convince a lifelong vegan to eat meat. Understanding how much sway you actually have to change a person’s behavior or an unsatisfying situation can prevent a ton of frustration, especially at work. “The more detached you can be about it, the better,” Green says. “Ultimately, it might not be your job to make that call. It’s your job to give your perspective and your recommendation. If you can be okay with washing your hands of it and letting someone else make that decision regardless of what that decision is, you come away feeling better about it.”

Practice active listening

Because a fight is a two-way exchange, listening is crucial. “Listening isn’t about doing a favor to the other person,” says workplace expert Amy Gallo, author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). Truly hearing someone better enables you to come up with a solution.

Rather than just waiting to talk, take deep breaths while the other person is speaking, Bayard Jackson suggests. In professional settings, you might jot down a few notes about what the other person has said and how you want to respond, Gallo says. The Gottmans also suggest note-taking and reading back what you heard to ensure you’re grasping their argument. You won’t be as reactive when you’re focused on transcribing the conversation.

One of the most effective forms of active listening involves repeating what you heard. Try saying, “Let me see if I heard that correctly,” or, “I think what I’m hearing is [the reason they’re upset] was really frustrating for you.” You can ask follow-up questions like, “Why do you think [the issue they’re concerned about] is happening?” or, “I know that’s hard. Why do you feel that way?” to signal you’re paying attention to their concerns.

As difficult as it may be, avoid interrupting. If the other party seems particularly inflamed, let them express all of their concerns so you can get the full picture of their argument, Seo says. Try asking them, gently, “Do you have anything more to add?” before recapping what you heard.

Try to be as objective as possible when hearing out the other person, Seo says. If you assume they’re acting in bad faith, you’re less likely to come to an agreement.

Focus on areas of agreement and negotiate where you don’t agree

In the heat of an argument, people feel the need to counter every detail their conversation partner brings up, Gallo says. Fight this urge and start by addressing where you agree, no matter how small. You can say, “That point you made about not wanting to go over budget is so important. I’m glad you said that.” Now, you have a shared goal. Agreement is an olive branch. Acknowledging the other party’s good ideas may lower their defenses and make them more receptive to other points you have to make, Segrin says.

In instances where you seemingly disagree on every point, work hard to find some common ground. Maybe you both are working in service of the company’s or your family’s broader goals. It’s worth it to ask, “What are we hoping to get out of this as a family? What path will serve those goals?” You can also invite them to imagine other people’s perspectives without directly getting other people involved: “How would our boss/teammates see this? What ideas would they come up with?”

“Rather than getting into a tug of war of just your perspective and their perspective, you’re inviting other people into the room, not literally, but in terms of their perspective,” Gallo says. “That will help expand the other person’s thinking about what’s possible and what are the options for resolution.”

One strategy the Gottmans use to facilitate compromise calls to mind the image of a bagel. Draw (or imagine) two concentric circles. In the smaller center circle, write what you don’t want to compromise. In the outer circle, write down all the ways you can compromise. Schwartz Gottman recalls a couple who were arguing about how to spend their retirement: The woman wanted to retire to a family farm in Iowa, while her husband hoped to sail around the world — these were their non-negotiables. The timing, duration, and expenses were all flexible. The couple compromised by agreeing that they’d sail for a year, and then spend a year on the farm.

In conflicts where you are diametrically opposed to the other person’s point of view, restrain from tearing down the other person or insulting their intelligence. Attacking the person and not the argument is a sign of an amateur debater, Segrin says.

Even if there is a wide divide between your opinion and a friend’s, consider whether it’s worth the energy of an argument at all. Ask yourself how much of a margin do you give your loved ones to think differently than you, Bayard Jackson says. We expect our friends to agree with us most of the time, she says, but it’s unrealistic to be on the same page as someone all the time. Where are you willing to diverge in opinion from your friends?

How to handle your emotions

Arguments are inherently emotional: It can be difficult to hear how we’ve hurt someone or have our opinions challenged. Sometimes your body might have a physiological reaction called flooding, where your heart rate rises, your muscles tense, and you go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, says Schwartz Gottman. In these situations, you should step away from the conversation. Say, “We should take a break,” and set a time for when you’ll return to discussions. This allows you to cool off, reconsider the situation, and/or get an outsider’s perspective.

To blunt the impact of emotions in workplace conflicts, Green suggests thinking of yourself as a consultant: to provide recommendations and leave it up to the client (a.k.a. your boss) whether to take them. “But you’re not so invested because you’re not part of their day-to-day team who feels that same emotional investment,” Green says.

If you’re nervous to even start the conversation, Bayard Jackson recommends front-loading the conversation with reassurances that your goal is to strengthen the relationship, and to even highlight your trepidation. Try saying, “I’d love to talk to you about something and I don’t want it to be awkward between us or for you to think I’m pulling away from the friendship.”

What to do if you really can’t see eye to eye

It’s also entirely possible that the other party does not offer you the same respect and courtesy during a disagreement. If the person you’re arguing with is extremely critical and interrupts you, you might say, “Can we slow this down? I really want a chance to finish what I’m saying before I hear your response,” or, “I really want to understand you. Can you say it another way?” Schwartz Gottman suggests.

Maybe the other party is resorting to lies during the disagreement. Try not to respond to every single falsehood, Seo says, but instead pick a representative lie that demonstrates how their other arguments are untrue. Similarly, avoid going tit-for-tat with someone who’s particularly combative. “You can do real damage by either being drawn to brawling with the other side or continuing to be reasonable when clearly that’s no longer the nature of the conversation,” Seo says. Try saying, “I think we’re disagreeing in a way that’s not going to help us understand each other or to reach a good outcome. Let’s come back to this later. But before we finish I’d like to get a few things off my chest and I’d rather we didn’t argue about it.”

“Then you can have the last word,” Seo says.

However, if the other person’s values and beliefs consistently make you feel unsafe or inadequate, you might consider ending the relationship. But for many other relationships — professional connections in particular — you may just need to agree to disagree. If both sides can respect each other’s point of view and accept how it differs from their own, the relationship can continue so long as there is mutual respect, Segrin says.

“There are going to be things, when we have a relationship with another human being, we just have to accept about them,” Segrin says. “It’s not always bad. It’s not about who’s right. It’s just acceptance.”

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